Why statistics are not enough

It would be easy if all you had to do to teach an important general principle was to describe it. You know:

  • An organisation with a rich diversity of employees will be more effective in addressing the diverse needs of its customers.
  • Young drivers are more at risk of being involved in a major automobile accident.
  • E-learning is twice as quick as the equivalent classroom training.

Presenting people with statistical information and descriptions of scientific studies will only get you so far. Your students may be able to recite a statistic in an exam and even regurgitate the ‘official interpretation’, but that doesn’t mean they really believe it, not deep down, at least as far as it applies to them.

Psychologists Richard Nisbett and Eugene Borgia conducted a number of studies with their students at the University of Michigan back in 1975 which led them to the conclusion that psychology was very hard, if not possible to teach. Although their students became more knowledgeable about the genetal principles of psychology, they showed little evidence of application of these principles to particular cases. However, when confronted with real, human examples of surprising behaviour (especially their own), they were quick to generalise these to the population at large. Their conclusion:

‘Subjects unwillingness to deduce the particular from the general was matched only by their willingness to infer the general from the particular.’

This statement, quoted in Daniel Kahneman’s excellent Thinking Fast and Slow (Penguin, 2011), struck me like a bullet. Of course, this is why guided discovery works so well when the objective is to improve problem-solving and decision-making skills, and why the exposition of theory is so frustratingly ineffective.

If you really need to ‘sell’ an idea, go for case studies, scenarios, simulations, practical assignments, backed up by coaching and facilitated discussion. Forget the slides full of theory and the tests that these have been remembered – or at least hold them back until the insight has been obtained through personal experience.

As Kahneman explains:

‘You are more likely to learn something by finding surprises in your own behaviour than by hearing surprising facts about people in general.’

Which means, of course, that this post will be of little more than passing relevance unless or until you can relate this to your own experience. But I couldn’t resist trying one more time.
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